FINDING THE RIGHT WORDS: Aurora refugees adapting to U.S. living — with some tweaks

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AURORA | Khokolah Sherzad isn’t very different from her peers at Gateway High School. The 17-year-old goes to school and is learning to drive, and she went to the Women’s March in Denver last month.

But for the Afghanistan native, the details are what separate her from her classmates.

Khokolah is learning to drive along with her mother, who wasn’t permitted to drive in Afghanistan due to her gender. The march in Denver was a new experience for the teen, who wouldn’t be allowed to partake in that kind of demonstration in her native country, because she is a woman.

While Baryalai Sherzad, Khokolah’s father, describes the day the family came to the United States as “one he would never forget,” things weren’t exactly rosy right off the bat for Khokolah and her five siblings. Their first days at school were a bit of a confusing blur. The kids didn’t speak English upon their arrival and they also weren’t familiar with how U.S. schools were structured.

“When we came to the United States, in the beginning, it was very hard for us because we didn’t speak English very much,” said Khokolah, who now has the highest GPA at her school. “We didn’t have any friends here. Everyone thought we were crazy because we didn’t speak.”

Back in Afghanistan, the children were educated separately by gender and the schools weren’t equipped with gyms and cafeterias, which were a few things the Sherzad kids had to get accustomed to.

But the most difficult part of the experience was something paramount to a child’s school life — making friends.

Unaccustomed to shaking hands with males or even showing their faces in their presence, Khokolah and her 16-year-old sister, Masodah, refuted the practice when they first came to the country.

“They extended their hand to say ‘Hi’ and I just said ‘No,’” Khokolah laughed. “After a couple of weeks … I decided to shake hands with the teachers but not the classmates. If you don’t shake their hand, it makes them feel bad.”

They also could understand some English, but didn’t speak it very well, rendering the young Muslim girls mute.

“It was scary and I was nervous and I didn’t talk,” Masodah said. “I just looked, but I didn’t say anything.”

Some of the challenges that came along with the language barrier now seem funny to the sisters, such as Khokolah not being able to open her locker and having to ask for help in a series of hand gestures that she said “probably made her look crazy.” But some of the issues are no laughing matter.

“If you don’t speak English, you can’t solve problems in math or science or chemistry,” said Khokolah, who wants to work in pediatrics when she gets older.

Though Jennifer Knight, the family’s tutor, said they have made a lot of progress, there is still more to be done. Despite being top of her class, Khokolah is staying at Gateway for one more year to improve her English and acquire the necessary high school credits she needs for college.

“It’s not only a requirement for matriculation, it will also give Kholoah more confidence when she speaks,” said Knight, who works as a volunteer ESL tutor with Emily Griffith Technical College. “They just have such an expansive intellect. They’re just sponges.”

The children’s eagerness and willingness to learn is something American students sometimes lack when compared to immigrant students, Knight said. This is reflected by the Sherzad’s tendency to embrace certain things that their peers often don’t, such as parent-teacher conferences and schools calling home if they don’t show up for class.

Baryalai said he couldn’t be prouder of his children, or more relieved that they now attend schools where he doesn’t fear for their safety. While the war in Afghanistan didn’t directly affect the province the Sherzad family lived in, it was still a fear he had every day when he sent his kids off to school.

“I was scared,” he said. “Bomb blastings or them being kidnapped … I was afraid for them.”

Khokolah, Masodah and Rookhan, their 14-year-old brother, all agree, and say they feel very safe in American schools.

And even as some refugees and immigrants fear what the political climate will bring as President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and executive orders seem to continually target them, the Sherzad family doesn’t fear. They demonstrate “great grace” and have tremendous loyalty to both countries they call home, Knight said.

“(Trump) is trying to protect his country from bad people, but he’s afraid of Muslims and not all Muslims are the same,” Khokolah said. “Some of them are bad and some of them are good, just like American people. There’s a lot of people coming here that are just escaping war and wanting to be safe and get a good education.”